Every motza’ei Yom Kippur, a bat kol announces, “Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, for the Lord has already accepted your deeds” (Kohellet 9:7).
Chazal explain (Midrash Rabbah, Kohellet) that this bat kol comes to inform us that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has forgiven all of our previously-committed aveiros and that a new cheshbon begins from this point. “Go eat your bread,” says the bat kol, “for your prayers have already been accepted.” From this midrash, we see that the y’mei hadin end on motza’ei Yom Kippur.
On the other hand, we know that y’mei hadin end on Hoshanah Rabbah, a day on which more time is spent in prayer, with some staying awake all night. This leads us to ask: When do the y’mei hadin really end? At first glance we seem to be faced with a contradiction in the words of Chazal – first they tell us that the y’mei hadin end on motza’ei Yom Kippur, and then they tell us that the y’mei hadin in fact end on Hoshanah Rabbah.
In Nechemia (8:17), the navi tells us that when the b’nei hagolah returned to Eretz Yisrael they built sukkot, “which they had not done since the days of Yehoshua bin Nun.” The Gemara in Erchin challenges this, wondering if it is really possible that they had not built sukkot since the time of Yehoshua bin Nun. Certainly in the time of David HaMelech, for instance, B’nei Yisrael built sukkot! Rather, what the pasuk means is that the b’nei hagolah had protection from the yetzer hara of avodah zara; Ezra, like none before him, requested the bittul (nullification) of this yetzer hara, which the pasuk likens to the protection of a sukkah. This leads us to our second question: How does a sukkah represent the bittul of the yetzer hara of avodah zara?
In order to understand the answers to these questions, as well as their application to us, we must ask a third question: The first time we find a sukkah in the Torah is in Parashat Vayishlach. After Yaakov and Eisav go their separate ways, the Torah tells us that Yaakov built sukkot for his livestock, and that he subsequently named that area Sukkot. Later, in Parashat Massei, the Torah mentions sukkot again, telling us that Bnei Yisrael made camp in Sukkot after leaving Raamses. The Torah is eternal, its words bearing infinite meaning for all the generations; why is it so important that we know today of Yaakov’s, and later Bnei Yisrael’s, encampment in Sukkot?
The Gemara in Berachot (4b) teaches that we must juxtapose geulah and tefillah. The Gemara challenges this ruling based on the fact that in Maariv we say Hashkiveinu between the bracha of ga’al Yisrael and the Shemoneh Esrei, interrupting between geulah and tefillah, and answers that the bracha of Hashkiveinu is considered a geulah arichta, an extension of our reference to geulah. What we are to understand from this answer is that every geulah, personal or communal, is destined to collapse if the beneficiaries don’t request shemirah for that geulah. Hashkiveinu is a geulah arichta – the shemirah of “Shomer amo Yisrael” is essential for the preservation of the geulah of “ga’al Yisrael.”
This shemirah is represented by the sukkah – a fragile structure made of cheap, flimsy wood, without a door, without a lock, without an alarm system. The sukkah makes a statement: we don’t need any external protection; HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s protection is more than enough. Indeed, in the bracha of Hashkiveinu itself we refer to the protection represented by the sukkah: “Ufros aleinu sukkat shelomecha, Spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.”
With our new understanding of the relationship between geulah and shemirah, we can now resolve the apparent contradiction in Chazal regarding the conclusion of the y’mei hadin. In reality, the y’mei hadin end on motza’ei Yom Kippur. This end, however, is only in the sense of geulah. The geulah of motza’ei Yom Kippur is reinforced by Sukkot and Hoshanah Rabbah, when we spend more time in tefillah requesting shemirah of our positive judgment.
Yehoshua bin Nun’s conquest of Eretz Yisrael was a tremendous geulah. However, he did not ask Hashem for shemirah of this geulah. (The Gemara in fact faults him for this.) When Ezra returned to Eretz Yisrael after seventy years of galut, he requested shemirah of this geulah through a bittul of the yetzer hara of avodah zara, which protected the b’nei hagolah like a sukkah.